The Illinois Wind Symphony, conducted by Stephen G. Peterson, Director of Bands at the University of Illinois, came back after a long absence Oct. 3 at Krannert Center’s Foellinger Great Hall.
This large ensemble of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments produces a mighty volume of sound in full cry. Few audience members sit up close to the orchestra. Most sit at the back of the hall.
The program opened with a 2013 work called “Moth” by Viet Cuong. This composer, reflecting on the moth’s attraction to light, prefers to look beyond scientific fact to imagine the moth moved by a romantic urge toward light and warmth. This work built up a waving, pulsating wall of sound that resulted in effects more emotive than pictorial. The conductor was UI doctoral student Isaac Brinberg, who drew an appealing reading from the student players. Brinberg earned his master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Next came a piece by Morton Gould, a composer famous for combining fine workmanship with popular appeal. His 1946 “Ballad for Band” was a somewhat understated work that attempts to evoke the spirit of African American spirituals without any literal quotations. It begins with quiet, smooth melodies, followed by an active middle section, to a cool ending.
Conductor Peterson brought out the introspective qualities in the Gould piece, and effected a sharp turn into the lively rhythms of Carlos Simon’s 2017 work “AMEN!”
Composer Simon said in his program note that this work is a re-creation of the experience of an African American Pentecostal Church service. The upbeat celebratory note was immediately struck with a trombone quartet standing up for a collective solo. Staccato piano music and a bass drum suggested the “call and response” element of the service. In a quieter mid-section, brass and clarinets intoned the gospel song, “I’ll Take Jesus for Mine.”
The final section built up intense excitement to the final cadence of “AMEN!” This dramatic finish aroused strong applause, and it was followed by a short, well-earned pause for the players.
Most of the second half of the program was devoted to the very ambitious work, “Concerto for Wind Ensemble” (1982), by the Czech-born composer Karel Husa. This work won a composition prize in 1983, and it has been compared in form to Bela Bartok’s great Concerto for Orchestra.
Based on a motif of three notes, E, E-flat, C, which came, by a complicated process, to stand for MSU (Michigan State University), the Concerto was to be played by five brass quintets, which surrounded the woodwind players. Each quintet had a saxophone (including the rare bass saxophone) placed in front. This resulted in a frequently dazzling display of instrumental timbres. The three movements were entitled “Drum Ceremony, Elegy (for Husa’s father), and Perpetual Motion.”
To give you an idea of the variety of sound, five kinds of clarinets were called for, from soprano level down to the contrabass clarinet, which did indeed end the “Elegy” section with some deep growling sounds. Also, 13 kinds of percussion instruments joined the melee of the final “Moto Perpetuo.” It was a triumph for conductor Peterson and the Wind Symphony players.
This concert of mostly unfamiliar music ended with the well-known, rousing “March” finale from Paul Hindemith’s 1943 composition with the jaw-breaking title: “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber.” As the final waves of sound stopped bouncing off the Foellinger walls, we in the audience rose to applaud the work of this fine ensemble.
The next concert of the Illinois Wind Symphony set for Nov. 5 at Foellinger Great Hall.